- An Embarrassing Revelation
- New World Medievalists, Fantasy and History
- Giving the Word 'Retro' New Meaning
- When Dinosaurs Roamed Eden
- Infinite Realms and Alternate Worlds
- Robert Bartlett on Medieval Other Worlds
- On Wonder
Postcolonial theory directed toward the study of the Americas has a tendency to describe western Europe as a community of nations with a shared set of values, especially in the outward thrust of their imperial zeal. Even within national boundaries, European countries are imagined to be homogeneous: the French, the English, the Spanish and so on are supposed to have discrete identities intimately tied to the stable and apparently natural boundaries of their homelands. Europe is thus composed of coherent corporate entities with a tendency to act uniformly, even when in competition with each other. In describing the exploitation machine erected by Columbus as a kind of "medieval vacuum cleaner" which sucked resources from the New World for deposit on distant shores, Antonio Benítez-Rojo can therefore assume that Europe acted as a singular agent in perfecting a structure which was initially rather inept, augmenting its Columbian bricolage with la flota (the machine formed of ships, ports, and flows of raw material and wealth), missionaries deployed to effect religious transformation, plantations with their adaptable structures for quick implementation and lasting domination, "an entire huge assemblage of machines" whose conjunction enabled efficient colonization and maximum profit (The Repeating Island).
Medievalists who study the European west are unlikely, however, to recognize the singular geographical actor at the receiving end of this impressive apparatus. Strangely enough, it is the culture of the meta-archipelago and the dynamic Caribbean machine which reverberate as possible figurations for the psychical and cultural complexity of the occidental Middle Ages. Recent work in medieval studies has undercut the possibility of assuming a transhistorical, corporate identity for Europe, arguing that the term organizes into an imaginary totality communities which did not necessarily perceive themselves as part of any such grand collective. Linguistically and culturally diverse, connected by shifting alliance and multiple affiliation, medieval Europa was a machine animated as much by conquest, alliance and shared history (consolidating or integrative movements) as violent counterstruggle and ultimate inassimilability (eruption, assertion, sedimentation of difference). Benítez-Rojo is writing of a specific time and place in their relation to constitutive histories and topographies, of a geotemporality of which the Middle Ages knew nothing and which -- "medieval vacuum cleaners" aside -- had in turn little knowledge of the European medium aevum. Yet his "polyrhythmic" conceptual figurations are useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as the western Middle Ages even while insisting upon the inherent inadequacy and potential violence which all such generalization performs.
What if like the Caribbean space described by Benítez-Rojo the western Middle Ages consist of islands of difference made contiguous through the shared embrace of turbulent, confluential seas? Bede, after all, described the flow of time (lapsus temporum) as both "churning" (volubilis) and "wave-tossed" (fluctivagus). Why not extend Bede's oceanic metaphors to include the possibility of more solid spaces within the temporal flux? Some of these islands might, like the barren outcroppings sought by early Irish eremites, stand in relative isolation. Most, however, would be more like monkish Iona. The loneliness of this island in the outer Hebrides dissipates the moment we recall that Saint Columba assembled there a polyglot community drawn from many nations; that the monastery which he founded was visited with some regularity by merchants from Gaul; that flows of books and boats and pilgrims traversed its shores; that little Iona's history is inseparable from epic battles waged in Ireland and Scotland, from the consolidation of a Christian Northumbria by Oswald, from the missionary effort to convert those Pictish kingdoms now lost to history. Adomnán, Columba's eventual successor and composer of his vita, even entertained at the monastery a storm-tossed pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. The Life of Saint Columba is a weirdly heterogeneous text, as likely to narrate a relentlessly local anecdote about a demon dwelling in the bottom of a milk pail or the saint's predicting an imminent spilled inkpot as to provide a sweeping evocation of how this "island at the edge of the ocean" disseminates miracles known beyond "the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps." Iona in the Life is not ultimately much of an island. Even when Columba resides on its rocky shores his spirit wanders, participating in distant martial clashes, communing with angelic visitors, scattering his selfhood across the wide world. The Life of Saint Columba textually performs this sacred fluidity, resolutely refusing linear chronology or recognizable biography. Names and events recur irregularly; sometimes Columba is dead and sometimes he is alive; the action often unfolds in Iona, but sometimes we are in Ireland, or among the Picts, or watching the Loch Ness monster attack. We are constantly transported across marine expanses without transitional signals, taken back to Iona without warning, in movements that draw together distant geotemporalities without synthesizing them into a homogenous whole.
The western Middle Ages as expanse of diverse conceptual isles means existence in intimate, unexpected connection through the swirl of manifold currents, through swiftly changing movements which rapidly commix flows of peoples, goods, ideas, armies, languages, architectures, books, genes, religions, affects, animals, technologies. Scatterings of lands gathered in their mutual relations, gathered with the currents that animate but do not totalize them, a medieval meta-archipelago would lack fixed boundaries and contain multiple centers. European cultures, communities, nations become relational and provisional imaginings rather than ontological, self-possessed wholes. Think, for example, of Custance in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, inscribing a colonial trajectory at once provincially English and transnationally Christian upon a world that includes Syria, Rome, Northumberland. A meta-archipelago requires that this cosmos be seen not only through that imperial gaze which frames the narrative, but also through the eyes of the Sultaness, the Northumbrians, Custance herself as a woman caught in a gendered game of cultural, religious, mercantile, bodily exchange. David Nirenberg has demonstrated that violence not only established medieval communities of diversity, but was integral to sustaining them (Communities of Violence). As the Man of Law's Tale also indicates, violence plays an important role in the instigation and maintenance of the flows that forcibly bind one conceptual island in the medieval archipelago to another.
Yet, in a kind of decolonization, the meta-archipelago enables the supposed margins of Europe to lose their status as peripheral geographies, so that Wales, Ireland, Brittany, Iceland, the Midi, Catalonia become centers in their own right, dynamic points of reception and dispersal in an open meshwork of transverse, transformative differences. No circumscribing map could capture the proliferating fullness of such islands, for every time the borders of a homogenous Britannia seem to have been securely delineated, another story begins to circulate of some interior, underground civilization where the people speak a long dead language, have green skin, or give other marks of their fairy alterity, of their inassimilable difference to an island that will never achieve its ambition of becoming a well ordered self-same.
These "figures of secret and unknown origin" (as Gervase of Tilbury called them) inhabited the interiors of mountains and ruled submarinal demesnes. Even the skies were populated by alien navigators of inscrutable intent. In the Otia imperiala, Gervase describes how a congregation leaving church beholds an anchor falling from the sky. In the distant clouds sailors can be heard struggling to pull the device back aboard their ship. Soon one of these mariners shimmies down the rope, hand over hand. He is immediately seized by the crowd, struggles for his life, and drowns because the "moistness of our denser air" is intolerable to his ether-adapted lungs. When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways. In mentioning such fantastic peoples living below the earth, under the waters, and in the clouds along with the real denizens of places like Wales and Ireland -- people who were themselves sometimes represented in just such "magical" and dehumanizing ways in order to exaggerate the challenge which they posed to English hegemony -- my intention is not to take any measure of concrete, lived reality away from any denizen of the medieval archipelago but rather, in sympathy with a medieval impulse, to populate its land, seas, and air with as much life as possible, to restore to this world its vastness, its vitalism, its irreducible heterogeneity.
[PS Here is a bit I found on Gervase's story of the enchurched anchor, including a mocking citation of Seamus Heaney's poem on the subject. And here is the citation itself.]